The Politics of Sound – Creating the Uncanny in M?

In “The Voice in the Cinema,” Mary Ann Doane articulates a relationship between sound-voice-body-space in the framework of cinema. She begins with a contrast: whereas silent films created a disjuncture between voice and body using intertitles (resulting in an “uncanny” effect), sound cinema creates the “phantasmatic body” or the “body reconstituted by the technology and practices of cinema” (318-9). This phantasmatic body is maintained through two properties: unity and presence-to-itself (conceptually related to Benjamin’s aura), both of which add to a fuller representation of reality through synchronization. Doane gestures to other technological advances that sought to conceal the apparatus, “reducing the distance perceived between the object and its representation” (320). Just as continuity editing reduces the spectator’s recognition of cinema as medium, synchronization, the creation of the phantasmatic body and the prioritization of dialogue in the hierarchy of sound contribute to sound’s ability to close the gap between spectator and diegesis, as well as to sustain the cinematic illusion.[1] Sound and dialogue spatialize bodies/voices and define a depth within cinema (even through the physical placement of the apparatus) to create “the consistency of the real” for the spectator (321).

Doane theorizes the voice-off and the voiceover as sounds that contribute to the lateral dimension within cinema. Voice-off signifies moments when a character’s voice can be heard but their body is outside of the frame. The voice-off is traditionally used to deny the limits of the frame and affirm “the unity and the homogeneity of the depicted space,” thus, the phantasmatic body remains whole (321). Doane argues that despite the fact that sound is typically analyzed in conjunction with the visual, sound is not “subordinate” to the image (322). In fact, because sound occurs continuously (homogenously) throughout dominant narrative cinema, a lack of sound is even a taboo. Space – not sound or image – is therefore the most productive means of considering the heterogeneity of cinema and Doane reaches the conclusion that the voice-off not only “deepens the diegesis,” but functions in the “service of the film’s construction of space” (323). Doane mentions the potential risk in the voice-off, namely that “there is always something uncanny about a voice which emanates from a source outside the frame” (323). Separating body and voice is construed as unnatural and for this reason, returning the voice to the body is a common device used to signify narrative closure.[2] On the other hand, voiceover[3] is a completely disembodied voice that – for Doane – only occurs in the mode of documentary. This disconnect between voice and body imbues the voice with a rather gendered authority and unquestioned power due to “its irreducibility to the spatiotemporal limitations of the body” (325).[4]

In “The Pleasure of Hearing,” Doane treats sound, space and the spectator through the framework of psychoanalysis. She posits that the voiceover and/or interior monologue communicates directly with the spectator, but the synchronous dialogue or the voice-off imagines a spectator who overhears, paralleling voyeurism and the visual (325). True to form, Doane’s psychoanalytic analysis looks back to childhood development and she concludes that “the use of the voice in cinema appeals to a spectator’s desire to hear” (325). Doane compares the child and the spectator, suggesting that they attain pleasure within the “sonorous envelope” of the theater from the unity, singularity and presence of the voice (327). Near the end of this section, Doane explains that the voice’s “potential aggressivity” is managed in two ways: 1) through dialogue in narrative cinema or 2) through a juxtaposition with the visual in documentary. Newer forms of documentary reject the all-knowing (aggressive) power of the voiceover and allow the images presented to create their own story, masking the constructive nature of cinema.[5]

Doane ends with a discussion of the possible politics/erotics of the voice-off. She notes that conceptualizing an erotics of the voice-off does not aptly confront the epistemological issue of “mind/body dualism” and only furthers this separation (329). Doane then expresses concerns that a sole focus on politicizing the voice will be reductive because “a film is not a simple juxtaposition of sensory elements but a discourse, an enunciation” (329). She finally considers the feminist “double bind”: it is risky to politicize the body because it has always been the site of feminine oppression, but the body simultaneously opens up new possibilities of “gain” because it has been a site of said oppression (329-30).

Dialoguing M with Doane’s article raises some important questions with regards to the film and Doane’s theorizing. It seems that Doane’s notion of voice as interiority is reaching towards subjectivity, a more popular theoretical framework today than psychoanalysis. Beckert’s monologue at the end of the film is not interior, but his the quality of his voice expresses his terrifying interior life and the suffering he has endured. In this way, his voice “displays what is inaccessible to the image, what exceeds the visible” and communicates to the spectator “the ‘inner life’ of the character” (324). Can a monologue that is audible within the diegesis also have the qualities of an interior monologue that is shared only with the spectator?

Silences and whistles are additional aspects of M that require further attention. Doane occasionally mentions silences, even conceding that “the voice is even more powerful in silence,” but does not fully elaborate this power (327). Does Beckert achieve some kind of power (or terror) in his silence? The scene that portrays the first big search for Beckert plays with sounds and silences; the car pulls up (makes no sound), men get out (no sound), the street is quiet until – tweeeeeeeeeeet – a high-pitched whistle breaks the silence. This order-signaling, disciplinary whistle contrasts with Beckert’s uncanny whistling of the Hall of the Mountain King. How can we compare this whistling with Doane’s conception of the voice? Does it similarly express interiority? Overall, is Lang trying to use sound to conceal the constructed nature of the film or draw our attention to it? Do we get closer to the “consistency of the real” in M than we do in a film like Boyhood, which does not play with sound (ie: there is a fairly consistent soundtrack, no obvious lack of sound and dialogue is at the top of the hierarchy), or is it reversed?


[1] When the hierarchy is broken, it is indeed jarring – think back to the very end of Lost in Translation when the sounds of the street overtake the whispered goodbyes between Charlotte and Bob.

[2] In relation to M, the voice-off is a particularly relevant concept, but interestingly, Lang seems to use it to purposefully invoke the uncanny and rupture the phantasmatic body. The first time we hear Beckert (Peter Lorre, the murderer) speak in M, he appears as a shadow, outside yet inside the frame simultaneously. Lang uses the voice-off in a way that Doane does not theorize by creating a sense of the ominous through this disjunction of voice and body. Beckert’s voice is silenced throughout the film – we get most of his interiority through facial expression, more like a silent film – and his voice only reunites with his body at the very end during his monologue.

[3] In Doane’s translation of Bonitzer’s quotation, she explains that Bonitzer uses “voice-off” to mean both voice-off and voiceover (in French). In Spanish, the same holds true. The term voz en off (literally voice on off) implies voiceover narration, not Doane’s “voice-off.”

[4] It is interesting to note that Lang considered M to be a documentary (Kaes 9), which certainly raises some questions about his use of voice. While M does not have an omniscient narrator, we could interpret Inspector Lohmann’s phone call detailing the search efforts as a disembodied voice with absolute knowledge. Although Lohmann’s body technically has spatiotemporal limitations (established by the scenes of his body present in his office), his voice seems to travel effortlessly through the images of everything he is describing, leaping beyond limitations of time and space.

[5] Where does Lang’s “documentary” fall into this? Is there a “voice without a subject” that is present in M (327)?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *